Analysis from Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made many surprising choices when assigning cabinet posts to members of his Likud party, but perhaps none more so than Tzipi Hotovely’s appointment as deputy foreign minister.

First, she’s a novice who has never held any executive branch position before, yet will now exercise de facto control over one of the cabinet’s most important ministries. Technically, she serves under Netanyahu, who retained the foreign affairs portfolio for himself. But since Netanyahu already has a full-time job as prime minister, she will largely run the ministry.

Second, she’s one of the most hawkish members of Netanyahu’s coalition and an outspoken opponent of Palestinian statehood. As The Jerusalem Post’s diplomatic correspondent, Herb Keinon, put it, “Hotovely represents the opposite of everything much of the world…wants to see in Israel.”

Third, in contrast to appointees like Miri Regev or Haim Katz, whose power bases within Likud were simply too strong for Netanyahu to ignore, Hotovely’s support inside the party is tenuous; in the last primary, she barely scraped into the 20th slot. Nor is she known as one of the premier’s own loyalists. Thus he was under no political compulsion to reward her with such a lofty post.

Finally, there were plenty of other candidates who would seemingly have been more suitable, including the one many American Jews undoubtedly hoped to see there: former ambassador to Washington and current Kulanu MK Michael Oren.

Indeed, Hotovely’s main qualification for the post – aside from being pretty, personable and reportedly speaking excellent English – would seem to be that she constitutes no threat to Netanyahu, who notoriously squelches anyone he does consider a potential political threat. That’s why so many ambitious Likudniks eventually quit the party to run their own parties (see Moshe Kahlon, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman).

Nevertheless, Hotovely could end up being an excellent choice, for the same reason I thought the indisputably talented Oren would actually be a bad one: In my view, the ministry’s main focus right now should be the vast stretch of the world outside North America and Europe.

For decades, the Foreign Ministry has focused almost exclusively on the West, for very good reason: The West was Israel’s main source of both trade and diplomatic support.

But in recent years, the second half of that equation has been changing. As evidence, consider last December’s United Nations Security Council vote on a resolution to recognize a Palestinian state despite the absence of a peace agreement. America and Australia voted against, while Britain and Lithuania abstained. But two of Israel’s other European “allies,” France and Luxembourg, voted in favor; it was three non-European countries – Rwanda, Nigeria and South Korea – that provided the final crucial abstentions which deprived the resolution of the nine votes needed for passage. In other words, while Europe split evenly on the vote, the African delegates split 2-1 in Israel’s favor (Chad voted for recognition).

Granted, the comparison is somewhat unfair – Rwanda and Nigeria are two of Israel’s best friends in Africa. Nevertheless, the fact remains that many countries in Africa, Asia and even South America have no particular grievances against Israel. Thus with diplomatic effort, it might be possible to persuade them to support Israel in critical venues like the Security Council.

In contrast, much of Europe is rapidly becoming viscerally anti-Israel – and no amount of diplomatic effort is going to change that. Effective diplomacy can sometimes alter a country’s rational calculations, but it can’t do anything to mitigate irrational hatred. And Europe’s hatred for Israel is utterly irrational; there’s no other way to describe an emotion that sent hundreds of thousands of Europeans into the streets to denounce Israel over a war in Gaza that killed 2,000 people and affected Europe not at all, but brings zero people into the streets to protest a war in Syria that has killed 200,000 people and deluged Europe with unwanted refugees.

Thus a deputy minister who maintained the ministry’s traditional westward focus would inevitably end up wasting much of his own and his diplomats’ time and resources. And Israel needs new friends too, in order to not waste another four years banging its head against a European wall.

Yet Oren, by instinct and training, would have done exactly that; he has repeatedly declared Israel’s eroding position in the West to be his primary concern. Even worse, he belongs to the school which holds that in an attempt to buy the love of Western liberals, Israel should endanger its own security by unilaterally withdrawing from much of the West Bank. Thus not only would he likely have misdirected the ministry’s resources, but, like too many other Israeli diplomats, he might also have ended up undermining Israel’s diplomatic position still further by serving as an outspoken advocate of greater Israeli appeasement.

Hotovely, in contrast, has no such instincts or training; she’s part of a generation and a community (hawkish religious Zionists) that have no illusions about Europe’s attitude toward Israel. Consequently, she might be open to the idea of focusing her ministry’s energies in more promising directions. Indeed, Europe’s demonstrative coolness toward her will push her to do so, since the alternative will be doing nothing.

It’s true that Europe remains Israel’s largest trading partner, and as such, requires some attention. But that trade is a bilateral interest, and has consequently continued growing despite the increasingly vociferous anti-Israel boycott movement.

It’s also true that Washington’s diplomatic support remains crucial. Yet for better or for worse, relations with Washington have always been handled by the Prime Minister’s Office; no deputy or even full-time foreign minister would have been given responsibility for America.

In contrast, Netanyahu has neither time nor energy to spend “cultivating…ties with Kazakhstan, Angola and Colombia” (to quote Keinon again). That leaves his deputy free to do so without fear of stepping on his toes – something that could easily happen with a deputy focused on countries the premier actually cares about.

Hotovely would win little public acclaim by focusing on Africa, Asia and South America, but she would do a great service to her country. And by so doing, she would prove herself worthy of her lofty position after all.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on May 19, 2015

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Israel’s constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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